Crime

It took 42 years, but trial begins for Florida man accused of murdering nurse in 1977

Attorneys state their case in 1977 murder

State prosecutor, Lara Penn, and defense attorney Charles White give their opening statements to the jury in the Bregman trial for the 1977 murder of Debra Clark.
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State prosecutor, Lara Penn, and defense attorney Charles White give their opening statements to the jury in the Bregman trial for the 1977 murder of Debra Clark.

It took 42 years, but a jury finally heard Debra Clark’s ill-starred story.

She hailed from upstate New York, was a nurse at Coral Gables Hospital and planned to enroll in law school. Clark also had an older married lover, Allen Bregman, a U.S. Coast Guard auxiliary member and the son of a wealthy South Florida property owner.

But their relationship took a murderous turn, prosecutors told a jury on Wednesday morning. They argue that Bregman killed Clark inside a South Miami town house on Aug. 4, 1977, after his wife discovered the affair and planned to file for divorce.

“He let himself in and he confronted Debra Clark in the master bedroom. The confrontation became heated,” prosecutor Lara Penn told jurors. “Debra Clark was not going to disappear quietly. He lost control. He became enraged. He shot her. He beat her with his hands — and his gun.”

Testimony began Wednesday in an unusual trial in Miami-Dade criminal court. Clark’s murder had remained unsolved for nearly four decades until Miami-Dade cold-case homicide detectives revived the investigation. In 2016, they arrested Bregman, a retired Boca Raton real-estate agent.

Bregman, now 77 and walking with a shuffling gait, had been free on bond since his arrest.

His defense lawyer, Charles White, acknowledged that Bregman was in an unhappy marriage and that Clark was his lover. But he insisted that prosecutors don’t have evidence to prove he was the murderer.

“Mr. Bregman did not kill Debra Clark. Allen Bregman did not kill his girlfriend because his wife wanted a divorce,” White said.

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The trial is expected to last at least two weeks before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dava Tunis. Bregman is charged with second-degree murder with a deadly weapon, and faces life in prison if convicted.

Clark’s relatives flew in from upstate New York to watch the trial. “It’s surreal,” said her brother, Brian Pantola, of Clayville, New York. “It’s been 42 years.”

In court, he wore Clark’s 1977 hospital employee badge — featuring a photo of the young woman smiling broadly — clipped to his shirt pocket. “I just wanted to feel closer to her. I wanted to feel closer to her spirit,” Pantola said.

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Debra Clark Handout photo

Clark was a native of upstate New York, who moved to South Florida and worked as a nurse at Coral Gables Hospital. The 23-year-old hoped to enroll in law school. She had an affair with Bregman, then in his mid-30s and married. He also owned the townhome where Clark lived.

“She met someone she thought was the love of her life. She met an handsome older man who swept her off her feet,” Penn said.

Bregman, who had a young son named Brandon, stayed often at the home he’d bought for his secret lover. Friends told police he kept belongings there. The two traveled as a couple — and Bregman even hosted her family in one of his properties when they came down to visit, jurors heard.

“He wanted to get a divorce form his wife so that [he and Clark] could have a family together and raise Brandon,” White told the jury.

But his wife did not know about Bregman’s “double life,” prosecutor Penn said. “Divorce for the defendant meant financial ruin, embarrassment and shame to his prominent family,” Penn said.

In August 1977, the normally punctual Clark never showed up for her nursing shift.

Police officers found her decomposing body on the bed. She’d been beaten to death. The townhome was not ransacked and showed no signs of forced entry. Bregman’s clothes and belongings were gone.

Dade County homicide detectives learned that in the days before the murder, Bregman was in New York for a U.S. Coast Guard training when a friend called to say that his wife, Florence, had learned about his affair and planned to file for divorce. Records showed that on Aug. 4, 1977, he flew from New York to Miami. Two days later, Clark’s body was discovered.

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Prosecutor Lara Penn delivers her opening statement in the trial of Allen Bregman, 77, on April 3, 2019. He is charged with the 1977 murder of Coral Gables nurse Debra Clark. Carl Juste Miami Herald

The following Monday, court records show, Florence Bregman filed for divorce. The next day, Bregman filed a $148,000 life insurance claim for Clark’s death with Allstate Insurance, a claim that was contested in court. A 1978 docket shows that Bregman invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent during court proceedings, something jurors will likely not hear about in the trial.

Miami-Dade Detectives David Denmark and Jonathan Grossman reopened the case in 2014, taking DNA and fingerprint samples from Bregman.

Tests revealed that Bregman’s fingerprints matched ones found on an ashtray near Clark’s bed, and on a sliding glass door in the town house.

Miami-Dade’s crime lab also analyzed a hair found on Clark’s arm and found it “was consistent” with a DNA sample provided by Bregman. The DNA is key evidence in proving Bregman is the killer, Penn said.

White suggested the hair was not enough because Bregman was often in the townhome. He said detectives, in the 1970s and now, focused so much on Bregman that they ignored other possible suspects.

“They missed a lot of clues. They didn’t pursue a lot of leads,” White said. “They didn’t look further.”

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